Eyewitness News Special: From Stigma to Understanding

Posted at: 02/11/2013 7:38 PM
Updated at: 02/12/2013 5:24 PM
By: Maarja Anderson

That tragic day in December that left 20 children and six adults dead in Sandy Hook Elementary has the nation scrambling to find a solution to gun violence. Many are pointing to the guns 20-year-old Adam Lanza used in the rampage and his mental health.

On the national stage, mental health joins the reinvigorated debate on gun control. The issue is receiving more media attention than ever before. Mental health professionals say they are happy mental health as an issue is finally getting more discussion, but they cringe at its connection with mass shootings. They say it could prevent even more people who need it from seeking help.

“If you associate violence with mental health all that does is increase the stigma,” said Scott Poupore-Haats, a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker with St. Luke’s in Duluth.

It has many fearing mental illness and equating a person with a mental health problem with a dangerous person.

“And why wouldn’t people be nervous about people with mental illness when what you see mostly in the media is mental illness being talked about in the context of mass shootings,” said Dr. Carolyn Phelps, a psychologist with the Human Development Center.

But Dr. Phelps said the numbers tell a different story, and only 4 percent of crimes are committed by a person with a mental illness.

“So who is that other 96 percent? That other 96 percent are simply the criminals out there,” said Dr. Phelps.

One in four Americans have a diagnosable mental illness, Dr. Phelps added.

Social worker Poupore-Haats agreed, saying there is not enough evidence to draw a direct link between violent behavior and mental illness.

Bills aiming to stop gun violence are moving through Congress and legislatures across the country. Among the many proposals are bills focusing on mental health, such as increased screening for background checks.

Dr. Phelps said this mental health debate in the legislatures reinforces the stigma.

“Some of the suggestions that have been talked about really amount to ‘let’s round up those people,’ and we refer to them as ‘those people.’ Let’s round them up and segregate them,” explained Dr. Phelps.

During a 3-day gun hearing last week, Minnesota lawmakers discussed a bill increasing mental health screening. It would allow law enforcement to ask for more mental health review of those wanting to buy a gun.

Those in favor the bill, such as Hennepin County Sheriff Richard Stanek, said this bill could keep guns out of the wrong hands.

“Research and experience has shown that a person with a mental illness that goes untreated is much more likely to commit a crime or be a victim of a crime,” said Sheriff Stanek.

But major opponents of the bill include mental health organizations. They said the bill send the public the wrong message and aligns violence and mental illness.

“Studies repeatedly find that mental illness does not cause violence, and I’m going to say it again, mental illness does not cause violence,” said Patricia Stark of the Minnesota Psychological Association.

The tragedy has moved the discussion of mental health front and center, but professionals say the best solution is to keep this an on-going conversation.

“Not just for guns and violence, but we really need to advocate for mental health to reduce the stigma,” said Poupore-Haats.